Virginia Barton

The search for the real Joyce

Catholic Herald, 16 September 1988


Review:  Darling Ma: Joyce Grenfell, edited by James Roose-Evans (Hodder & Stoughton, £14.95)


joyce_grenfell_bwA recent re-run on TV of the film Genevieve reminded me of Joyce Grenfell’s superb talents as an actress. The tiny cameo role, perhaps three minutes in toto, as a hotel receptionist, was quite complete. At about the same time, I met someone who never admired her. I mention this for it’s a rarity.

One makes these assumptions (well, I do) – surely everyone was a Joyce Grenfell fan? She certainly needs no introduction from me, except possibly to younger readers. When she died in 1979, it was as if one had lost a personal friend. The man in the crowd at her Memorial Service in Westminster Abbey said it all: “I never knew her . . . but I always thought she knew me – and loved me”.

Darling Ma is part of the huge collection of letters Joyce wrote to her mother Nora between 1932 and 1944. Nora was an American from Virginia, one of the original Gibson girls. The recipient of these letters is revealed at one remove. Joyce, though sometimes exasperated by her mother’s feckless traits, obviously adored her and it is to Ma that she generously attributes her talents.

Nora’s sister Nancy married the immensely rich Waldorf Astor (2nd Viscount) and became the first woman to take her seat in the House of Commons. The energy and drive of our North Atlantic cousins is reflected in the descriptions of country-house life at Clivedon, the Astors’ principal home.

Assorted pukkha people, politicians and notables flit intimately through the letters. Kind Aunt Nancy gives the impecunious newly-wed Grenfells a cottage on the estate, from where most of the early letters are sent.

Reggie Grenfell, Joyce’s husband, is another top-drawer type – which didn’t preclude him from being a wonderful partner in what one feels was a perfect marriage. His rather shadowy figure emerges as the solid rock on which Joyce built her life.

In the almost weekly letters, Joyce’s theatrical career begins to unfold. The meeting with Herbert Farjeon, key to its development, is modestly referred to among items of war news and the arrival of refugees from Austria. This is an example of the “roundness” of Joyces’ life; not all theatres and parties but firmly rooted in the real world from which she drew her inspiration.

An intelligent observer of’ human nature and “types”, she was never patronizing.  An instant success on the London stage, it never went to her head, though the excitement of her first night spills into the letters and must have been intoxicating.

Since the letters are written to her darling Ma, they are quite without guile or pretence. I doubt if an autobiography would be as revealing. The paragraph in the introduction is an aid to understanding Joyce’s faith in Christian Science, about which she was very private. “. . . Happiness is losing your false sense of what you are . . . and finding out the person God made.” These letters trace, in part at least, the search for her real self.

It’s a long book, with plentiful photographs, which will be snapped up by the fans. Finding one’s way among the hosts of family and friends is eased by thumbnail biographical sketches. Alas neither these, nor the family tree, include enough dates. A shortcoming Mr. Roose-Evans will perhaps make good in a further edition.




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